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October 6, 2006

Player Profile

Robinson Cano

by Marc Normandin

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In his second season in the majors, Robinson Cano came out of nowhere to enter the race for the batting title, posting a .342/.365/.525 line that at first glance appears to show marked improvement over his rookie campaign. Is that really the case, or has Cano been the beneficiary of a great deal of luck in his sophomore effort?

Son of former Astros pitcher Jose Cano, Robinson was signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent in 2001 at the age of 18. His first professional baseball was played for the Gulf Coast Yankees, where Cano hit .230/.330/.365 in 200 at-bats. However, he walked in almost 12 percent of his plate appearances, and his BABIP was a fairly low .253, leading one to believe he'd improve without changing anything the next year. This did in fact occur, as Cano moved up first to Low-A Greensboro, then Short-Season Staten Island once its season started, then back up to Greensboro:

TEAM                 AB      AVG     OBP    SLG     SecA    XBH%    ISO    2B+3B    BB%     K%
Staten Island (A-)    87     .276    .308   .391    .218     29%    .115     6      4.3%    8.7%
Greensboro (A)       474     .276    .321   .445    .232     33%    .169    29      5.7%   15.4%

His plate patience cratered from his initial debut, but with his BABIP climbing closer to league average, his Triple Crown rate statistics received a boost. This was an impressive season for a 19-year-old at High-A, at least in his ability to make contact and contact with power. The lack of walks was certainly a concern, and his strikeouts jumped upwards at the same time, signaling that he had issues with plate discipline. Cano was named to the Sally League All-Star team as a shortstop, but this would be the last season he spent any kind of time at the position.

Baseball America rated Cano as the #8 prospect in the Yankee organization heading into the 2003 season, behind a whole bunch of current major leaguers: Jose Contreras, Hideki Matsui, Juan Rivera, Brandon Claussen, and Chien-Ming Wang. The idea of calling Matsui a prospect seems somewhat funny, although it seems to fit with Contreras, who was coming from a far less difficult environment in Cuba. Baseball Prospectus 2003 regarded Cano as a shortstop, and thought he was fit for the job:

The Yankees organization has a passel of touted young shortstops; most are touted merely for tout's sake…This year, the best of the bunch is Cano. Cano hit better than any of the others, and flashing lefty power at 19 makes him someone to follow. Although his footwork at shortstop needs work, he has the arm for the position.

The following season, Cano was promoted to High-A Tampa to play second base, struggled after a hot start, and was nevertheless rewarded with a spot on the Double-A Trenton roster. I have never really understood why a player who isn't showing anything at the plate is sometimes nevertheless promoted quickly, but it happens, and Cano managed to hold his own at Trenton regardless:

TEAM           AB      AVG     OBP    SLG     SecA    XBH%    ISO    2B+3B    BB%     K%
Tampa (A+)     366     .276    .313   .377    .148     24%    .101    19     4.4%   12.6%
Trenton (AA)   164     .280    .341   .366    .140     24%    .098    10     5.0%    8.8%

When I said Cano held his own, I meant that his performance didn't drop much further from the low point it was already at. He didn't show any of the power on display in Greensboro, and his plate patience continued to flag. The only real positive from his 2003 season came from his lower strikeout rate. The question now becomes, did he strike out less because he saw so few pitches per plate appearance, or because he was able to control the strike zone?

Baseball America ranked Cano the #6 prospect in the Yankees organization heading into the 2004 season, which at this stage was about the equivalent of noting that Eric Milton was the Reds #1 starter in 2005. Someone's got to take the spot, after all. Thanks to a lack of ordered lists, Baseball Prospectus 2004 was a little more on the money with Cano's performances up to that point:

His age and the organizational affection for him mark Cano as a prospect, but there's not much here. Forget how BP likes plate discipline and how Cano doesn't walk. Having been moved off of shortstop in 2003, he's a second basemen who isn't fast and who hasn't hit for very high averages. His prospect status is almost entirely a scouting thing, where they like the way he looks at the plate and project that he'll fill out his six-foot frame with time. That might happen, but for now, Cano looks like he needs at least one full season in Double-A and lots of improvement. Trade bait.

Cano opened the season in Double-A, and put up a fairly admirable performance, especially for a 21-year-old. It's hard to nitpick with .301/.356/.497 from your second baseman, especially when he hits 35 extra-base hits in 292 at-bats, and he even managed to knock his walk rate up to 7.4 percent. The one thing I would not was his .331 Batting Average on Balls in Play; it was roughly .025 points higher than his career BABIP average so far, and normally those numbers should decrease as the difficulty level increases. That said, the small spike in discipline was certainly a welcome addition to his performance.

His Triple-A performance saw a drop in his BABIP, down to .273, well below the league average figures of roughly .300. This is the danger inherent in a player who isn't fast and relies on batting average to fuel his performance; if you can hit it where they ain't, as Wee Willie Keeler used to say, you're golden. Sometimes though, just as a leg injury can hinder the performance of a Juan Pierre, the balls just won't drop where you need them to, and the performance will suffer drastically. Cano only managed a .259/.316/.403 line in Columbus, but he did manage to keep his walk rate at his Double-A level. The drop in BABIP was most likely a combination effort of better defensive performances and poor luck.

Baseball America ranked Cano as the #2 prospect in the Yanks organization after his strong performance for Trenton. There was really no reason to fear his poor showing in Columbus, as he was still only 21-years-old. Baseball Prospectus 2005 was encouraged by Cano's performance:

Cano started out strong at Double-A Trenton but struggled when the Yankees pushed him up to Columbus. The signing of Tony Womack pushes back his timetable by two years, at least on paper; when Womack reverts to his pre-2003 form (not that 2003 was anything to celebrate), his $2 million per annum contract will be but a petit four for George Steinbrenner to swallow. Not that Cano is necessarily going to be the next Willie Randolph, but sometimes it pays to take a tactical risk rather than bet on the definitively mediocre.

PECOTA didn't have that much faith in Cano for the upcoming season, which has to be expected considering his non-2004 performances in the minors. A .255/.298/.389 only looks useful in comparison to someone like... well, Tony Womack.

Cano actually managed to destroy Triple-A pitching during his second stint there, posting a .333/.368/.574 line in 108 at-bats. He was back to roughly five percent of all plate appearances for his walks, and his BABIP was a very high .352, but the Yankees desperately needed an answer in their lineup, which had been somewhat undermined by the rapidly decline of Bernie Williams and Womack being Womack. Cano got the call and ended up making 130 starts at second base, and had a very good season, especialy considering his age: .297/.320/.458, although his walk rate dropped to the lowest point of his career, a measly 2.9 percent. Overall, though, it was a solid debut:

TEAM             AB      AVG     OBP    SLG     SecA    XBH%    ISO    2B+3B    BB%     K%
New York (MLB)   522     .297    .320   .458    .263     34%    .161    38     2.8%   12.3%

Cano finished second in the Jackie Robinson Award voting behind Oakland closer Huston Street, and it's somewhat scary to think his 2005 probably wouldn't even register on the voting if he were a rookie this year. As a side note, Cano ranked dead last among players with at least 250 plate appearances in pitches per plate appearance.

PECOTA projected a .283/.316/.425 line for Cano in 2006. He beat that forecast by a long, long way, but not without the help of his old friend, BABIP. Take a look at his batted-ball data for the 2005-2006 seasons, and you'll notice only one significant difference:

Year        P/PA        FB%        LINERD%        GB%       IF/F         HR/F        BA/BIP
2005        3.1        29.3%        20.6%        50.1%      11.2%        10.1%        .321
2006        3.2        28.2%        19.9%        51.9%      12.3%        12.3%        .363

The type of batted ball Cano would hit didn't change very much, and certainly not in manner significant enough to bring on a .342 batting average. The most significant change was in his BABIP; .321 is somewhat high, but it's only about 20 points above the league average. His .363 on the other hand, is more often than not the result of some serious luck. Dave Studeman put together a "general formula" for an estimated BABIP; Line Drive Percentage + .120 = Expected BABIP. When a player is that far out of line with his Expected BABIP, you can expect regression or improvement, depending on which way he's facing.

Cano's 19.9% line drive rate leads one to assume that his BABIP should be roughly .319l--right around where his 2005 BABIP lies, and in line with both years of batted-ball data. To make things even more interesting, if you subtract the .044 difference between his estimated BABIP and his actual, his season line is .298/.321/.481; almost exactly like his 2005 line, with a pinch more power thrown in.

As previously stated, there's a very good chance that Cano just has balls landing in the right spots this year, whereas last year everything was fairly normal. There hasn't really been any change in his pitchers per plate appearance, so Cano most likely isn't waiting around for a particular pitch to whack. This is a limited example since it's only in Yankee Stadium, but it gives you something visual to work with:

2005 is on the left, 2006 on the right. If you take a look at left and right field, you can see that a great deal of flyouts from 2005--most likely line outs as well, which MLB.com doesn't seem to track--are now singles. He has hit a few more balls down the left field line than previously, which accounts for some of the increase in his slugging percentage, but it looks as if he's just had a great deal more singles land in front of outfielders than he did last season. Is this a repeatable skill? Looking at his minor league track record, I'd have to say no. Cano still has room for growth as a player--after all, this is just his Age-23 season--but the growth should be an addition to the numbers he displayed in 2005, not the outlier of 2006.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles. You can find some of Marc's other work here.

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